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How Madison Wisconsin Incentivizes Energy Efficiency in Student Housing

Creating a market of sustainable housing options for students living off-campus at University of Wisconsin-Madison.


At Focus-UW we are working on persuading off-campus rental property owners to make their housing more energy efficient to create a market of sustainable housing options for students living at University of Wisconsin-Madison. A roadblock our campus currently faces is the fact that students in Madison generally live in off-campus housing or apartments for only one or two years. Therefore, rental property owners do not see how engaging in environmentally sustainable practices or making their properties more energy efficient will be of any benefit to them. At the same time, for the students who desire to live in more environmentally friendly housing, there is no easily accessible database that exists for them to find information about the energy efficiency or sustainability of properties off campus.

Our goal for the next few months is to create incentives which attract property owners and students to environmentally-friendly housing. We are researching the most effective and credible way to rate off-campus housing on energy efficiency. The most recent stakeholder we met with was the Director of Community and Residential Properties at Madison Gas and Electric where we discussed the resources available to property owners who agree to retrofit their properties. We also discussed how we can educate students on how to conserve energy at home. Once Focus-UW finds an effective means of rating off-campus housing for energy efficiency, we need a way to present this information to students. We plan on developing a user-friendly program to connect landlords with energy efficient properties to students looking for sustainable housing.

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If every household in America improved their heating efficiency by 16 percent, it would have the same impact as taking all cars in the state of California off the road. Accomplishing this technical feat is manageable, and it doesn’t require a solar panel on every roof.

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Every day, doctors around the country depend on electricity to power life-saving equipment in their hospitals. Most of us don’t realize it, but the electricity in a hospital usually comes from their own on-site power plant—they are constantly producing their own power. In fact, the engineers in charge of these power plants always make more energy than they really need. This makes perfect sense when lives are on the line, but a lot of the energy ends up wasted.

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Domestic Science: Cold-Water Washing, Powered by Enzymes

Heat isn't the only force of nature that can loosen molecules of grease and dirt from clothes and speed up cleaning.


In the annals of green living tips, cold-water wash is a classic. Wash your laundry on cold, and you save the energy needed to heat up the 40 gallons of water used in a typical load. Another classic: Buy concentrated laundry detergent. Less packaging means less waste and less energy used transporting the stuff to you.

These ideas have proven tough sells, though. Companies that market cold-water detergent estimate that consumers choose cold water for about two-fifths of all loads, and sales have declined over the past year. There are proven environmental benefits to washing in cold water—one household can avoid emitting more than a metric ton of carbon dioxide each year—but the corresponding savings on the electric bill, around $60 per year, are less impressive. That hasn't been a strong enough incentive for most launderers to abandon hot water, which has a deserved reputation for cleaning clothes better than cold water.

But heat isn't the only force of nature that can loosen molecules of grease and dirt from clothes and speed up cleaning. A company called Novozymes, a branch of the Danish drug-maker Novo Nordisk, has been working with detergent manufacturers to develop enzymes to tackle stains in cold water. Novozymes specializes in the production and commercialization of enzymes, proteins that can help break down organic materials. The company works on a wide range of problems, including biofuel production, in which enzymes help break down complex carbohydrates like corn into the simple sugars that get processed into ethanol. Enzymes can make similar short work of corn syrup spilled on a favorite sweater during a failed baking experiment.

"I never knew how hard a chocolate ice cream stain was to break down until I did this," says Adam Monroe, president of Novozymes North America. "The problem is not really the chocolate in the chocolate ice cream; it's the gum that they put in the ice cream that's the stain issue."

The company has a library of enzymes that can solve particular stain problems—when a customer comes in with a request, the company starts pulling enzymes off the shelf and testing their efficacy. (The company's researchers do a lot of laundry.) "We find a lot of these enzymes in nature," Monroe says. "Then we work to make them even more efficient."

Enzymes have been part of detergent formulas for years, and with control of 47 percent of the world's enzyme market, Novozymes is a leader in the field. But only recently has the company begun imagining how enzymes can make products like detergents more environmentally friendly. Besides making cold-water washing work, enzymes can replace petroleum-derived elements of detergent and reduce the total volume of detergent needed. Novozymes is thinking now about how enzymes could help reduce the amount of total water needed for wash cycle. The enzymes also biodegrade, Monroe says—the company worries more about enzymes breaking down too quickly, before a product is used, than about enzymes lingering in the water supply.

Some green living tips demand more personal sacrifice than they offer gain, even if every person in America took them up. But cold-water washing isn't one of them. Up to a quarter of a home's energy use can go into heating water—for dishes, for showers, and for the 400 loads of laundry that a typical family does each year. Hot-water washing isn't a necessity or a luxury, though: At this point, it's a waste.

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How to Green Your Holiday Travel

I've come to think of getting to Christmas as another part of the season's indulgence. But there are ways to get home and hold onto green principles.


Each of the past three years, I've made the environmentally irresponsible choice to drive to Michigan for Christmas. I'm a relative newbie to Christmas: Growing up, my family celebrated more Jewish Christmases, with Chinese food and a movie, than we did traditional Christmases with the Catholic side of the family. The Christmas I celebrate now, with my boyfriend's family, is full of wonderful indulgences: cookies and wine and piles of wrapping paper and a Christmas lamb roast. While I wouldn't give any of that up, I've come to think of getting there as another part of the season's indulgence. The drive from New York to Ann Arbor takes 10 hours and burns multiple tanks of gas, which, as a city dweller, I don't do very often.

I've heard rumors of hardy souls who turn down a ticket home for the holidays in order to keep their carbon footprint low. But no one I know can resist the lure of family (or, alternately, the pressure of parentally induced guilt), whether they're headed for a fireside Christmas at home or a nondenominational bake in the sun in Mexico. Without practicing extreme self-denial, though, there are ways to indulge in a holiday getaway—no matter what mode of transportation you're using—and still hold onto the green principles you abide by the other 11 months of the year.

Planes. A handful of airlines have made the switch from jet fuels to biofuels, the best green option for air travel, but biofueled commercial flights are still a rarity. If your holiday plans include European travel, KLM has some flights on its Amsterdam-Paris route that burn a biofuel blend, and Lufthansa uses biosynthetic kerosene on its Frankfurt-Hamburg service. For most trips, though, the greenest flight is the most direct one. Because it takes more energy to get a plane into the air than to keep it there, every takeoff and landing increases the carbon footprint of a plane trip.

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Every three months, GOOD releases our quarterly magazine, which examines a given theme through our unique lens. Recent editions have covered topics like the impending global water crisis, the future of transportation, and the amazing rebuilding of New Orleans. This quarter's issue is about energy, and we'll be rolling out a variety of stories all month. You can subscribe to GOOD here.

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